Even though the Mother Emanuel murders happened more than a year ago, the videos and trial of Dylann Roof ripped open anew the collective wound of a state and those who survived. And so we enter Christmas with peace on earth juxtaposed against hell in Charleston.
Hell traveled to Charleston last year disguised as a skinny, 21-year-old, baby-faced kid who parked in front of the church, ambled up to the door and walked inside — exactly where any kid, yours or mine, should go, as many parents have prayed their children would do.
Before he arrived, church members came for the Bible study. Two women hugged in the parking lot. The pastor came out the door to greet another congregant. They appeared so, well, joyous. Joyous to see each other. Joyous to fellowship together. Joyous to know Jesus.
Hell was greeted with heavenly kindness inside. Black accepted white without hesitation. What was in the black bag strapped around his waist? No one thought about it because it was a house of worship, not judgment.
Then the prayer. Then gunfire. And screams. And after it was over, the church door opened, hell cautiously peeked out and walked to his car, this time holding a gun that looked much larger against his small frame.
Hell had determined to kill himself at that point. But when the moment came, he chickened out and was arrested.
So why did Dylann Roof do it? Said he to the FBI: “Well, I had to do it because somebody had to do something, because black people are killing white people every day in the streets. The fact of the matter is that what I did is minuscule (compared) to what they’re doing to white people all of the time.”
Jesus talked about hell more often in the New Testament than heaven, but Dylann Roof personified it and pared it down to a sound bite perfectly fit for the evening news.
His lawyers, doing their job, tried to explain the inexplicable in terms of mental illness. But the judge would have none of it. The jury and the rest of us were forced to confront the fact that unspeakable horror can co-exist within a perfectly rational creation.
So are we left to celebrate Christmas freshly reminded of a world so full of evil that it permeates our community and the soul of a shy, skinny, ordinary kid with a .45-calibre Glock and the notion of white supremacy?
No. Because this story does not end there, just as the other story about another child did not end when his poor parents could not find a suitable place for him to be born, and had to settle for a manger.
We enter Christmas with the millennia-old words from the Bible announcing the birth of the Savior, and now with the freshly spoken words of those who lost the most, yet clung to that Savior for dear life — when faith is most tested and most needed.
At Roof’s arraignment last year, Nadine Collier, whose mother was killed, looked hell straight in the eyes and said: “You took something very precious from me … but I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
During the trial, Felicia Sanders, the shooting survivor who saw her son and aunt killed in church, recalled that Roof said in his confession with the FBI that “He didn’t have any friends.”
“But he had nine friends sitting in church that night,” she said. “If only he had waited right after we said the prayer, we would’ve all gathered around him and found out what his needs were, what his wants were and invited him to come back.”
The heralds of the Bible were ordinary people chronicling extraordinary events. The people at Mother Emanuel are ordinary people living out extraordinary biblical faith tested in the most hellish way possible.
That’s the Christmas story. Unvarnished.
Mr. McAlister is president of a Columbia public relations and marketing company; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.